A Fairy Tale

White-haired and -bearded wizard with robes an...

An otherwise intelligent friend who tends to read about this sort of thing a lot forwarded me this link about “The Law of Attraction” (ala The Secret). After I delivered a somewhat immoderate blast about the nature of reality and how consciousness, while certainly a mystery and all that, is misplaced in this sort of discussion, he asked me to pretend he was my 4-year-old and to tell him a “bedtime story” that represents my idea about “the universe.” This is how I obliged. I’m not sure he got the allegory, but I thought it was rather obvious.

Once upon a time there was a young prince who went out into the woods to find some treasure. He walked around for hours and days and months, but he couldn’t find any. Then, he went to a wizard. The wizard told him: “If you want to find treasure, you must first learn how to search for it properly.

And the prince stayed with the wizard for 7 years and 7 months and 7 days and read a lot of books and thought about a lot of things and the wizard taught the prince how to tell when he was close to treasure. He also taught the prince how sometimes, even if he thinks he’s close to treasure, he isn’t, really. And sometimes even if he’s really sure he’s right, he should still think about all the things the wizard taught him to make sure, and if they didn’t agree, he should be really, really sure before he ignores what the wizard said.

And then the prince went out and searched for years and years. Finally, he did find some treasure, but it was a lot less than he had hoped for, and he was disappointed. But along the way he found a princess and found out a lot of cool things, and had a lot of fun. So he was still happy that he had gone out to find the treasure instead of sitting around in the castle all day.

In the end, he and the princess took the treasure and went back to the palace and lived happily ever after.

(In another version of this story he finds a lot of treasure. In another version a bandit kills him before he meets the wizard at all. In another version the prince is gay.)

I should add that I find the basic argument of the article (positive thoughts seem to help, so regardless of whether the mumbo-jumbo is true or not, why not try heeding the advice?) more or less sound. The immoderation was provoked by the other parts of the article and how the author makes a feeble attempt at “science”, and the discussion was more a continuation of similar discussions we have had before. Also, the many-worlds hypothesis, which apparently this guy has never heard of.

PS: This quote from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is one of my absolute favourites.

Matters of Principle

I was reading this article on livemint and wondering what to make of it. I had also read an article called “UID: Facility or Calamity” at South Asia Citizen’s Web that Aashish had shared on Google Reader a while back, which I also wanted to revisit and link to, but their site is partially broken and I can’t get at the page: here’s a cached version on google. It says, essentially, that:
a) the Unique ID/Aadhar scheme, which gives a biometric ID to all citizens is not voluntary in any real sense of the term for a lot of people, because it’s required to access certain “social security” services,
b) that it is being implemented in a hap-hazard fashion which doesn’t ensure coverage for everyone,
c) that it will be inaccurate, (pretty much guaranteed, it’s only “how bad” that we can control)
d) that this program is going to be very (too?) huge in scope, allowing for conditional cash transfers and rolling up several existing services into one, and
e) that it is going to turn into a surveillance tool that is almost guaranteed to be misused, and that there are no options for redressal of grievances that do not go through the same body.

Now, all of these are true to some extent, but… well, b) and c) are going to be true for just about any government initiative, isn’t it? And one would think a biometric ID would, if anything, be less amenable to fraud than anything else. As for d): it was DESIGNED for that, wasn’t it? I didn’t really see the problem in that when it was first proposed, and I’m not sure I see the problem now, apart from a natural distrust of big government; but somehow I don’t think that was the problem for the authors. So we are left with a) and e), and I realized, I’m not actually very concerned about a) . (This would be the matter of principle referred to in the title.) In theory, I should be quite upset about it, especially when combined with e), but if it comes with sufficient efficiency gains for people who, let’s face it, really need all the help they can get, I’m a lot less upset about it. I’m concerned about e), of course, and I’m not getting this thing unless I absolutely have to,  but I find myself willing to take the risk for other people, when there are other considerations in play… and n0, the sheer hypocrisy of this doesn’t escape me. That’s just how I roll sometimes. (Read the Livemint article I linked to earlier for some context, though.)

A large part of the reason I’m not more upset at this is that I do have a little bit of a fetish for this sort of technocratic solution to all our problems, implemented by fairly well-respected members from the private sector; although the last time I re-read the Foundation series was at least a year ago! I think I would take b), c), and e) a lot more seriously if this were something else. As it is, I can’t honestly come down on this one way or the other, except to say that “calamity” seems to be a remarkable overstatement.

Wikileaks and the Long Haul

Wikileaks and other things

Logo used by Wikileaks

Could work for the news about the job too, huh?

First, if anyone still hasn’t read Clay Shirky’s article on wikileaks, please do so, here. It’s not that long, and it is written and reasoned well enough that anyone from any side of this conflict should be able to at least appreciate his arguments.

Why does no one seem to get the fact that Assange is, essentially,a journalist? He’s not the one that leaked the papers after swearing to keep them quiet: whether that was brave/necessary or not, we can at least accept that it is a crime. But Assange is simply the man who distributed the cables, and one can barely even claim that he is distributing it in an irresponsible manner, considering the limited nature of the disclosures so far. (On the other hand, was I ever wrong about them probably not containing anything interesting!). His arrest warrant is of course for an entirely different crime, but the way in which all wikileak‘s lifelines, in terms of hosting space, DNS providers, and money have been cut off, is ridiculous. Shame on Paypal, Amazon, Visa and MasterCard! The charges themselves are a little dubious: the details seem to be just a little bit off.

Oh well. I have a lot more to say, but other people have already said it better than I could. The Guardian has been doing really excellent coverage of this whole affair, and liveblogging it with some frequency, so keep your eyes tuned there. And of course on twitter.

In other news: I got a job! A job offer, rather, to work as a Junior Field Engineer in Schlumberger, which is a company that specializes in oil-field services. It’s a fairly tough job, in terms of both mental and physical demands- half of my interview was the panel trying to scare me out of the job, and there were a few horror stories during our celebration dinner, too – but it’s also a “life of adventure”, at least in some ways, and there are lots of opportunities for travel. Not to mention, the pay isn’t bad, at least by Indian standards, or even standards here on campus.

PS: I have just realized that I have unironically shared a video by Glenn Beck. I’m sorry, my feminist friends. I don’t agree with him, but it IS funny, and more importantly, it puts the “Assange’s a rapist!” allegations in some context. Unless he’s making it up, of course. I don’t think the alleged victims are making it all up, but I do think it’s likely that they’re being pressured in some way, regardless of the Swedish prosecutor’s objections.

What is “Too Nice”?

Ben Casnocha asks on twitter:

What exactly is annoying about people who are “too nice”? You suspect it’s a put-on? Unchecked idealism? Dull / boring?

And… I have to say, I have no idea. I do tend to get annoyed with people who are too nice, but it’s not any of the three above; I think it’s that for some reason I see such unrestrained niceness or selflessness as somehow indicative of stupidity, and I’m just a great big snob. Perhaps that can come under the “unchecked idealism” objection?

Interestingly, an acquaintance of mine who is reasonably intelligent has, in the past, referred to herself as “too nice”, and I have always vehemently disagreed (silently, I mean, I didn’t tell her that 🙂 ). And she is “nice” in general, I suppose, although not to the same level as the people who annoy me. But then that’s a rather subjective assessment.I wonder if the effect works in reverse, as well.

Some reactions on twitter are interesting:

Rebecca Rapple
rebeccarapple: @bencasnocha Lack of independence — you want a conversation, not an echo chamber!
Jeff Huber
jeffreyhuber: @bencasnocha niceness seems to be normal dist with time as the x axis. Too nice too soon assumes relationship. Too nice too late, dishonesty.

Batting for the Other Team

(Or insert the euphemism of your choice.)

OkCupid has another interesting post, this time on gay sex vs straight sex. Lots of random interesting findings, and of course all of this is very specific to the US and probably even just urban US for the most part, but this struck out:



Now, that is a HUGE differential. Not only have almost thrice as many women had/considered having gay sex, they are also far more likely (1.5, by a crude calculation) to enjoy themselves. I thought that was just a movie thing! Is it just that the social attitudes towards lesbianism is to treat it as “play”, whereas male sexual “experimentation” is treated as far more alarming? Or is it because it really is a lot more fun for women? 🙂

Also-and this is pretty depressing- from the charts given in the next part of the article, I think I would much rather go out with a gay woman than a straight one. (Apart from the whole sex bit, of course.)

A Question

Who is it that still does not understand this mundanely vicious cycle of curfews/blockades/other form of economic (at best) or physical deprivation–> popular outrage/support for separatists/anti-government sentiments–>Emboldened and newly capable extremists/ separatists/terrorists/ “freedom fighters”, if you wish–>more attacks on the state/the outsider group of choice/other suitable targets, usually meaning white people–>more curfews etc?

Everyone who has any sort of power over any of these decisions should be made to go through the Analog Circuits course here in IIT Madras; 4 months with Shanthi/Nagi should thoroughly drill in the concept of positive feedback.

Yes, I know I’m oversimplifying. I know riots kill people, and curfews presumably result in less damage overall.  I don’t know what we should do instead. But I find this situation, at least the way it is reported, a little ironic:

“No separatist leader would be allowed to paralyse life across the valley and cause adverse effect on education of children, commercial activities and the livelihood of people,” an administration official said.

PS: Am I going a little too crazy with the links etc? Zemanta makes it really tempting.

Sexism and Objectification

With reference to this post, and this one (for those who don’t feel like checking out the links, Luke at Common Sense Atheism put up a list with pics of “sexy scientists” and “sexy atheists”, and one of the women who recently started writing at scienceblogs/Discover took offence, although to a different instance, of being appreciated for her looks as opposed to her scientific accomplishments ).

I think one of the reasons I have for tending to side with Luke (although in this specific case I don’t think he’s doing a very good job of defending himself) is that I always interpret the condemnation of objectification as perhaps stronger than people intend it to be. I’m hearing “people who call attention to a woman’s attractiveness or “sexiness” are sexist” and I’m thinking, hey. That’s harsh. It doesn’t make any sense. It specifically rubs me the wrong way that this basically amounts to people telling me what I can and cannot post on my blog. On the other hand, I am coming around to thinking that what they are actually saying is that this sentiment is not a “good thing” to express on my blog, seeing as it doesn’t do any good to anyone and runs the risk of trivializing all the other achievements of the woman or women in question, because of the fact that attractiveness, especially in women, is one of the key things that people define other people by.

If one treats the “sexist” allegation as a grave personal insult, which I think is what Luke is doing,  then things are much more problematic. There is no way for him to frame his post as something positive. On the other hand, there’s harm, and then there’s harm, and this has to count as a fairly benign offence.So I am treating this issue as, essentially, “bad manners” on Luke’s part.

On the general issue of objectifying women-my views are well expressed by this post (to a first approximation- I might have phrased some things differently, but unless someone calls me out on some particular issue I’m not going to bother right now), which I found linked to somewhere in this discussion. I wonder why more people did not respond to it.

Curiously enough, the more I read feminist blogs, the less I am coming to think of “sexist” as a particularly strong insult… if only because there seems to be no way out of it, if one accepts their definition. You can of course disapprove of me or my actions because of perceived sexism, and if your approval is important to me I will take that into account, but I am becoming far less inclined to view this as a moral issue with the accompanying assumption of normativity. (I don’t think that’s a word. What’s the word I’m thinking of?)

A Small Miracle; Or, an Improbable Chain of Events

Here’s a little story that happened last night:

I had just spent an extended weekend at home and just before I had to leave, I realized that I had lost my key ring, which had the keys to my room and cycle. I usually place it in a small pouch in the back pocket of my bag when I come home. This time, for some reason, I had tossed it right into the back pocket, as far as I remembered. I had only bothered to check for it 20 minutes before the train back to Madras was scheduled to arrive (just as I was leaving from home) so it was a rather frantic search… in the bag, on my desk at home, in all the million pockets of the cargoes I was wearing on the train that da… but in vain. Once we got to the station and discovered that the train was late by 15 minutes-confirmed it, rather, because this train is always late- I checked all over the bag again, and so did my father. I was rather careful and it felt like a thorough search*.

Almost exactly like my own key-ring, if you remove the black one at the bottom.

Anyway. I had made a very glum peace with it- wondering how I would go about breaking my lock, deciding to call one of my more able-bodied friends for help, etc- and was just settling down to bed-to berth, I guess? No, too weird- when I realized that I no longer had my earphones, either. This, interestingly enough, did not affect me much at all, despite the fact that I usually rely on music to help me sleep on the train. After searching everywhere else,  I wondered if I might have put it in the bag, for some reason, and decided to check.

So I thought to myself, if I open the bag and see the keys right now, that would be a real miracle, because by now I had convinced myself that I had lost it on the train from Madras, last Friday.  And because my father had been telling me to pray even if I thought it was pointless, because it would help me worry less about things- and because this is “the age of blind reason”, till my mid-20s, and I will learn the subtleties of faith later, or something- I sort of looked up and thought in a snarky voice:** “You hear that, God? A miracle. That’s how desperate I am”. Then I opened the back  pouch.

And-ha, like you didn’t know this was coming- there it was, lying right in front of me in the middle of the pouch.

Yeah, I know. It wasn’t that much of a coincidence. The bag was tilted somewhat this time, so maybe it had been stuck in some very tiny, hard to reach place- all searches were conducted by opening it wide and groping around with my hands (but more carefully than that expression suggests), not pulling it upside down and shaking it- and I had just pulled it loose by throwing the bag to the upper berth and tilting it. Or something. Natural explanations a-plenty. But, even so, I would have felt quite intellectually dishonest if I hadn’t blogged about this.

Thoughts? I have a rather large number (proportion, rather, because my numbers aren’t large at all :))of atheist readers… would something like this happening to you cause a substantial change in your probability of God existing? Would it cause any change at all? From a purely Bayesian point of view it is obvious that it should cause an almost insignificantly small change, but the impact it has in a visceral sense is quite a bit stronger: that is to say, several events of this sort would still only cause a relatively small change for a strict Bayesian, but your average human it is much more liable to shift the balance of probability entirely. And I will confess to not being a very strict Bayesian.

PS: I never did find the earphones, in case anyone was wondering. They were pretty old, but still in quite decent condition. And although I really don’t understand why, I’m still very relaxed about that.

*I’m only going into detail on this to show that at least at the time, I was fairly sure the keys weren’t in the bag.

**I swear I did this, I wrote this down on my phone soon after I got the keys. I don’t know if this is a thing “normal” people (whoever they are) do, but I tend to talk to myself a lot, and I often use  several entirely different voices in my head. I had this rather “unrealistic” British accent that I used when I read Shakespeare- most of my English textbooks, actually- back in school. There are a bunch of others, but I really don’t want to go into detail here 🙂 .

Are Humans Dominant?

Sneaking a peek at my brother’s opened tabs for his environmental studies homework I find the following phrase: “…An accident of history we may be, but there is no question that Homo sapiens is the single most dominant species on Earth today.” Really? No question? This is a fairly common view, but I’ve always been a little confused by it. Exactly what criterion are we using for dominance? It can’t be numbers, because there are several species which are far more numerous than us. It can’t even be the extent of the globe we cover, since I think even plankton (ok, I know that’s not a single species or genus or anything, but I’m too lazy to do any detailed  research on this) could lay claim to more of the earth than we do:

The dictionary definition of “dominance” is “exercising influence or control”, which says nothing about numbers or extent, so I suppose we can always call ourselves “dominant” by virtue of being able to exterminate other creatures more effectively than any other species. This is at least the focus of the page I quoted from, Chapter 13 of The Sixth Extinction by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin. But while technically correct this seems to be a remarkably narrow view of dominance, because power exerted in this fashion holds almost as many risks for us as for the other creatures. Our actual power to change the earth in a controlled fashion is far more limited than most people seem to think. I guess we will find out soon enough, if the geo-engineering crowd gets its way.

Things I find annoying:

Not so annoying that I would break off contact with them or anything, but annoying enough that I feel like screaming, just a little, every now and then. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list.

  • Joining “1000000 STRONG AGAINST WORLD HUNGER” type Facebook groups and posting it all over my wall.
  • Reading a book about the struggles faced by poor people, and telling people how emotional it made you. (Context-dependent annoyance, obviously. This wouldn’t be annoying if you were telling me this to explain why you decided to give up your corporate law/investment banking job to work at a non-profit or even better, a more traditional charity.)
  • “Raising awareness of problems” without raising awareness of any practical solution. Especially if you can’t even explain the problem properly. (Oh, go ahead and guess what I’m talking about.)
  • Many types of political, religious, and philosophical arguments (clearly, not all of them). Particularly the ones that don’t even want to make a point. Especially with people who seem to have taken a vow to never, ever give logical reasons for anything they say. The most *headdesk* cases are where they blatantly state that a logical rebuttal is unnecessary, which of course applies mostly to religious arguments.
  • People who always, always speak in puns. Or cliches. Cliches I can accept if the people are nice enough, but the puns-or PJs, in most cases- can sometimes get a little overwhelming.
  • This post was drafted ages back, last October apparently, and I no longer recall what it was motivated by. I still agree with most of it, though.